The Massachusetts congressman tells Jason Zengerle in this week's NY magazine that it was a mistake to push for reforms, especially once Republican Scott Brown was elected senator and made it much harder for Democrats to push through legislation. Frank is not running for reelection this fall. Some snippets:
You think Obama overinterpreted his mandate with health care?
The problem with health care is this: Health care is enormously important to people. When you tell them that you're going to extend health care to people who don't now have it, they don't see how you can do that without hurting them. So I think he underestimated, as did Clinton, the sensitivity of people to what they see as an effort to make them share the health care with poor people.
So you think health care, in part, was the reason you lost the House.
The depths of the recession, that the president didn't want to blame Republicans because he wanted to work together, and health care - those were the factors.
It seems like Americans have an irrational relationship with government.
Yeah, they want more from the government, but they don't want to pay for it. Now, the tea-party people thought the way to resolve that was to reduce what the government does. That turns out not to be popular. Many of us on the Democratic side think that the way to do it is to increase the revenues, mostly from wealthy people. Let me put it this way: I think the prospects of increased taxation on the wealthiest people and a reduction in the military are very likely. And by the way, just one other thing: the polls. Do you want to cut Medicare? Eighty percent say no. Do you want to cut Social Security? Seventy-six percent no. Do you want to cut military commitments overseas? Sixty-five percent yes.
But at the same time, there's that famous sign, "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare." There's this contradiction in what people want from government.
Yes, there is. But that's because people don't like government. You didn't ask me what the attitudes would be toward government but what government would do. I think there will be an expansion of government's activity. People may not call it government. If the Republicans win everything in November, then we're in for a very bleak period, because they'll take it as ratification of this anti-government attitude. I think it's going the other way. I have a bumper sticker for us: "We're Not Perfect, But They're Nuts." And I think the public buys that.
You were talking about the Republicans and not being able to work with them. But isn't your ultimate beef with the voters, since it's the voters who reward that behavior?
I'm glad you said that, you're very smart. These days, in developed countries, everybody says you need a private sector to create wealth, you need a public sector to create rules by which wealth is created. Sensible people understand that. The tension between left and right has been where you draw that line, but it's been a contest between people who see maybe a 20 percent overlap. Let me read this to you. [Picks up copy of Friedrich von Hayek's The Road to Serfdom.] "In no system that could be rationally defended would the state just do nothing."
Do you get frustrated with voters acting with such pique: They throw out the Democrats just because they're mad?
Politicians make mistakes, journalists make mistakes, and the public is no bargain either. Yeah, I get frustrated. But some people in the media act like Washington is some autonomous entity that's operating with no connection to the public. I had a woman stop me the other day, she said, "I'm very angry about Congress. What are you guys doing?" I said, "Who's your congressman?" "Oh, I don't know," she said. "Well, see, I vote for me," I said. "I'm happy with me. Why are you blaming me for the people you vote for?"